Radioactivity meters proposed for Cape
By Patrick Cassidy
October 15, 2009 2:00 AM
HYANNIS — Steve Jones, a house painter from Salt Lake City, Utah, who summers on Chappaquiddick, knows preparing for nuclear war is not high on most people's to-do list.
"It's not something you're going to spend time on but what if it happened?" he said. "You wouldn't have a clue."
That is why he is pitching local public safety officials with a simple credit-card size device that detects radioactive fallout. Jones volunteers for Arizona-based Physicians for Civil Defense, a nonprofit group trying to provide officials with information on what to do in case of a nuclear detonation.
Having helped distribute radiation detection meters to fire and police officials on Martha's Vineyard and in Arizona, Jones now has his sights set on the rest of Massachusetts.
On the Cape, Jones is handing out samples of RADTriage cards to public safety officials. The cards, he says, could help reduce panic as much as they could help determine if there is radiation in the air, he said.
Having grown up hearing his mother describe surviving the 1942 Coconut Grove fire in Boston in which nearly 500 people died in a crowded club — many crushed against doors that opened the wrong way — Jones has long considered the dangers of panic.
He hopes the cards and a 4-inch-by-3-inch yellow training sheet will allay some panic during a nuclear detonation or power plant accident. The training sheets provide information people might recognize from the Cold War when preparation for nuclear attacks included actions like getting under a desk.
By simply dropping to the ground or getting behind a nearby structure many injuries from an initial blast can be avoided if a person is far enough from impact, he said.
The cards, with information on the sheets, are "better than nothing," Jones said.
"It's the unknown that creates panic," said Fay Crowe, owner of Crowe and Co., the company that distributes- RADTriage cards to Jones' group.
The cards detect ionizing radiation, the type of radiation that passes through the body and causes damage, Crowe said. Radiation causes the cards to turn colors much like light affects a photograph, she said.
They cost $21 each and can be stockpiled for up to five years if frozen. If not, they may start to change color after a year because of background radiation, she said.
Both Crowe and Jones said the cards can still be helpful after a year because they continue to show if there is a spike in radiation. If public safety officials see a spike, they can evacuate the public, Crowe said.
The cards are typically paid for through a Department of Homeland Security grant, she said. They have been distributed to the South Carolina State Guard, the Portland, Ore., fire department, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Bomb Squad, she said.
The cards are used in Portland for people who assist first-responders during a potentially radiological incident, said Grant Coffey, coordinator for hazardous materials at the Portland fire department.
"It's a comfort tool is what it is," he said, adding that first responders in Portland do not use the cards because they do not actively alert a person who's been exposed and do not keep a detailed record of the exposure.
Locally, Jones seems to have a way to go before the cards are accepted.
"Giving somebody a piece of equipment is fine but making sure they have the training to use it is really the paramount thing," said Yarmouth Deputy Fire Chief Robert Kelleher of the state's District 1 Regional HazMat Response Team.
Other Cape public safety officials said that, while they have met with Jones and applaud his initiative, they defer to hazardous materials experts and the state's fire marshal for radiological emergency information.
The state fire marshal's office did not have any direct knowledge of RADTriage cards and could not say whether the cards were something they would recommend, said the fire marshal's spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth.
Officials with state and federal emergency management agencies said they have their own response plans and training for radiological disasters. While there are many types of personal radiation detection devices, officials said they did not have any specific knowledge of RADTriage cards.